“What’s the story with the Charlie Brown Christmas tree? Why is it a thing?”
I spun at the question and looked with disbelief at the friend who had asked it. Once my ethnocentricity abated a bit, I realized our Dutch graphic artist, Irene, had never seen the 1965 animated holiday special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” She’d never seen the potential of a scrawny little fir tree or watched the Peanuts gang turn it into something special while finding “the true spirit of Christmas.”
As I started to explain its origin, I noticed her computer, where a search for the term “Charlie Brown tree” had filled the screen with various versions of it — all of them, of course, for sale.
No wonder Irene had to ask.
It was a sad, but fitting irony. The cartoon tree, meant to symbolize the true and simpler spirit of Christmas in an increasingly commercialized world, was reduced to yet another product with a price tag, its history and origin concealed under every online seller.
But I couldn’t dwell on my disappointment. I, like the Peanuts gang, had to look past the commercialism of Christmas and share its true spirit. (Charles Shulz’s version of it, at least.)
If you recall, the Peanuts gang is seeking the true spirit of Christmas and lamenting its commercialism. Lucy has instructed Charlie Brown and Linus to select a dazzling tree that “fits the modern spirit of Christmas.”
The cartoon Christmas tree lot (of the mid-’60s) is filled with pink, blue, artificial and metallic trees. But sitting forlorn among the showy spectacles is a tiny tree with nearly no needles and barely three branches.
“This little green one here seems to need a home,” Charlie Brown tells a dubious Linus. “We’ll decorate it and it’ll be just right….Besides, I think it needs me.”
Charlie Brown totes the tree home and swipes a red Christmas ball from Snoopy’s garishly decorated doghouse. The tiny tree folds under its weight and Charlie Brown walks off, defeated.
But the others soon happen upon the drooping little tree.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love,” Linus declares, tucking his blanket around the base and propping it up.
Recognizing its underdog potential, and helping themselves to the rest of Snoopy’s doghouse decor, the group transforms it. Sparkling with pride and, apparently, with the true spirit of Christmas, the triumphant little tree leaves us (well, most of us) with a sappy smile and a satisfied lump in our throat.
Oh sure, we could pick apart the well-meaning Christmas cartoon with the knee-jerk criticism and snide cynicism of social media. We could, with woke superiority, point out the obvious anthropomorphism, imbuing a tree with feelings — a dead tree, by the way, that’s been ripped from its natural habitat. But must we? Can we pause the negativity and judgment for a half-hour, and savor the sweet nostalgia of a cartoon Christmas tree that just needed a little love? Can that be the story Irene hears about the “Charlie Brown Christmas tree?” It would be a Christmas miracle, but I have to believe it’s possible.